Rauner’s staff shakeup doesn’t bode well for school funding reform

File photo by Grace Donnelly

In a staff shakeup that’s been called “ruthless” and compared to a “massacre,” Gov. Bruce Rauner has systemically replaced conservatives in his office with outright reactionaries.

In political terms, it’s hard to make sense of it.  Illinois is not some deep-red state, and the state’s swing voters certainly prefer stability to the chaos that seems to be Rauner’s stock in trade.

Obviously he’s betting that with a huge campaign war chest, he can create an alternative reality for voters who might otherwise notice that he’s accomplished nothing in his first term.

The installation of the new regime does clarify some matters.  First of all, the head-rolling is pretty solid evidence that the General Assembly’s override of Rauner’s budget veto was a major defeat for the governor.

It also clarifies Rauner’s role in this year’s legislative session, when he made public statements about the need for compromise but repeatedly undermined budget deals when it came time to walk the walk.

The folks from the Illinois Policy Institute that he’s brought into his administration never wanted any kind of budget deal with Democrats.  The budget they proposed included no new revenue and cut health care and education mercilessly. It now looks like Rauner’s talk about compromise was purely for public consumption. He never intended to go along with anything the legislature passed.

What we’re witnessing is the culmination of decades of anti-government rhetoric from Republicans, now being taken to its logical extreme.  Presidents from Reagan to the second Bush have attacked government in their speeches, and their top priority has always been cutting taxes on the rich at the expense of programs that fight poverty and build the middle class. But they never walked away from the responsibility of governing. Reagan actually raised taxes when the deficit got out of hand, and Bush passed a huge new drug benefit for seniors.

In contrast, Rauner doesn’t believe in government, he doesn’t believe in governing, and he’s perfectly willing to walk away from it.

The Policy Institute takeover of the Rauner administration doesn’t bode well for the current struggle over school funding.  Rauner has made speeches calling for correcting the state’s gap between high- and low-income school districts, which is the largest in the nation.  He appointed a School Funding Reform Commission, which recommended a funding formula based on an adequacy index for each school district.

The Policy Institute opposes that approach. It wants “real reforms,” like cutting teacher pensions.

Now Rauner is threatening to veto SB1, which embodies the recommendations of his commission.  The bill does so in an even-handed manner, beginning by establishing current state funding levels for all school districts as the baseline, and including state support for the normal costs of Chicago teachers’ pension fund and retiree health care, the same as every other district gets.

Some 270 school districts would get larger per-pupil spending increases than Chicago, according to SB1 proponents.  That’s part of the reason district superintendents from across the state are lining up in support of SB1; one noted the formula “does not include winners and losers.”  The goal of that approach was to avoid pitting districts against each other and to create a funding reform “the entire state can support,” according to the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability.

Rauner prefers to divide and conquer, scapegoating Chicago schools while setting them up to be the loser in the deal (and promising other districts that doing so means more money for them).

He prefers the approach in a Republican version of the new funding formula, which treats Chicago differently than other districts – and would actually result in annual cuts of tens of millions of dollars, possibly more, for Chicago Public Schools, a district that’s already in dire financial straits.

But with opponents of funding reform now running his shop, it’s possible that even this is just posturing on Rauner’s part ­and a stratagem aimed at sabotaging reform.

The immediate question is whether schools will open this fall, since state funding is tied to passing a new funding formula.  I’m not sure it would matter to our non-governing governor – our anti-governor – if scores of low-income districts couldn’t open in September. He embraces crisis as “opportunity” and backs bankruptcy for school districts. And he can always launch a barrage of TV commercials blaming someone else.

Let’s hope there are still legislators on both sides of the aisle who accept the responsibility of governing. Surely there are Republicans who are tired of the recklessness, double-talk, and back-stabbing that increasingly characterize this administration.